Obama's speech: same old, same old
Well, the people have spoken. Barack Obama had wanted to wait another week to give his State of the Union speech, but they wouldn't let him. It would have delayed the season premiere of Lost. So he gave it last night instead, while the reruns were still on.
For the first half hour or so, I even thought Obama's speech was a rerun of the one he'd given last February. He spoke on the same topics, named the same ambitions, mentioned the same small successes and enormous challenges, and made the same pointless appeal to Republicans to work with him to change the tone of Washington politics. (video | text)
He even repeated several exact phrases he's used before: "Despite our hardships, our Union is strong." "When I ran for president, I promised that I wouldn't just do what was popular; I would do what was necessary." "We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families." And so on.
There were a few important differences to last year's speech, though. That one had been delivered with a passion buoyed by public support. This year's lacked enthusiasm, as though Obama just wanted to get it over with. But most importantly, he was speaking to a different audience altogether.
I don't mean the American people, who in all three special elections in the past year (in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts) voted for the opposition. No, this year he spoke to the Congress — as he should.
Unlike in the parliamentary system, the U.S. president is separate from the legislature. If he wants something done, he is dependent on the good will of the Congress to make it happen. And Congress, of course, acts in its own interest.
A distrust of Congress
The past year has shown that Obama can't even depend on his own party to back him up. The Democrats currently enjoy the largest majority they've had since 1981. The last time the Republicans had such a majority was in 1931. Still, each new Congress gets less and less done because its members fear the voters.
"What frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is election day," Obama said. "We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side — a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can." Some Democrats applauded this, but stopped suddenly when he said: "I'm speaking to both parties now."
"To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills."
Obama has picked up on something here: Americans' distrust of Congress is far stronger than their distrust of any president. It's a long shot, but his criticism of Congress may help him. As happens to all new presidents, Obama has seen his popular support fall from 70 percent to 50 percent. But a growing number of Americans don't like the fact that Obama has been working on fulfilling his promises from 2007 and 2008 (Iraq and health care) instead of adapting to the new priorities of 2009 and 2010 (jobs and the financial crisis). The president took care to acknowledge this in his speech as well.
The opposition's response
The Republican response, given by newly elected Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, was not so much a rebuttal as a PR event. Instead of speaking into a TV camera as the responders usually do, McDonnell invited friends, family and fellow Republicans to sit in the Virginia Legislature and offer round after round of applause to his very broad statements. (video | text)
McDonnell hit the talking points that resonate most with Republican voters today: the national debt, which he said "is set to double in five years and triple in ten"; "innovative energy solutions", which to him meant exploring for oil and natural gas; and letting children (or their parents) choose their schools. He suggested that viewers visit the Republican website at solutions.gop.gov and (prompting a few giggles from the audience) follow their proposals on Twitter. A quote from Scripture and a promise of equality of opportunity rounded things off.
The campaigning is already underway for the Congressional election in November of this year. Next year at this time, will Obama be able to report any progress? Or will we see another rerun?